Even in Ireland I still think ‘Will they drop a bomb?’
New to the Parish: Ahmed Lulu arrived in Ireland from war-torn Gaza in 2014
Ahmed Lulu, who was born in Iraq but grew up in in Gaza, at the Siamsa Tíre theatre, Tralee, Co Kerry. “If someone bombed the street outside right now I would just walk by because that is normal to me.” Photograph: Domnick Walsh
Ahmed Lulu loved playing in the streets around his family’s home in Gaza as a child. One day, when he was 12, Lulu’s best friend insisted they check out one of the more dangerous parts of the city where fighting often took place. Lulu tried to convince his friend to return home and when he refused, Lulu began walking alone in the direction of his house. Suddenly he heard gunfire.
“I turned around and saw my friend lying dead on the ground. I was frozen to the spot and was so scared. I went directly home and told my mum and she informed his family.
“We always used to play together and every day he would come to my house to play football. Then suddenly he was gone. We talked about how much we missed him in school and put his picture on his desk. My parents told me he would always watch over me and that I’d have him in my heart and my mind. That’s life; what can you do?”
It’s like when you hear music – you think, I’ve heard this before. It was the same for me with bombs
Lulu was born in Iraq in 1991 where his father was working as an engineer. The family returned to their home in Gaza in 1994, but Lulu and his mother continued to visit Iraq where his two brothers were studying. He remembers his mother was often questioned by border patrol about the food and gifts they brought from Iraq.
“If anyone wanted to get in and out you had to get through Palestinian soldiers and Israeli soldiers. The gifts she bought were always taken by the soldiers. But I was small at the time and would sneak behind them and take the stuff back.”
Growing up in a city plagued by violence, Lulu grew accustomed to the sound of bombs and helicopters flying overhead. “Even now when I hear a helicopter I look up and think will they drop a bomb? If someone bombed the street outside right now I would just walk by because that is normal to me. It’s like when you hear music – you think, I’ve heard this before. It was the same for me with bombs.”
After his best friend was killed, Lulu’s family moved to a new home in an area where he often witnessed killings on the streets. When he was in his late teens he watched in horror as a neighbour, who was affiliated with the Fatah group, was beaten by members of Hamas. Shortly after the incident, members of the Hamas militant group approached Lulu. “They told me to give them information on the man living in our building. His sons were my friends and he was also my dad’s friend. If I said ‘yes’, the man’s family would kill me. If I said ‘no’, Hamas would kill me.”
When Lulu refused to comply with the order from Hamas, he says he was beaten and left with a broken nose. When he returned home his family quickly made arrangements for the teenager to leave the country. His father paid for a visa that would allow Lulu to travel to Ireland via Denmark. He was then smuggled out of the Gaza through one of the underground tunnels into Egypt.
As soon as Lulu arrived in Denmark he tried to apply for asylum so he could travel to Sweden to join his brother who was already living there. He spent a year in Denmark but eventually had to leave for Ireland where he had a valid visa. “In Ireland I didn’t know anyone and it’s so far from Sweden. I wanted to be close to my brother so I could visit him. In our country, family, brothers, sisters, we’re very close.”
Lulu arrived in Dublin in July 2014 with minimal English and no contacts. With the help of a friendly bus driver he made his way from the airport into the city centre but quickly became lost trying to find the immigration office. “I spent three hours walking the streets but didn’t know where I was going. I was so scared; I was on my own in a new country where I couldn’t speak the language and had nothing in my pocket.”
Lulu eventually found a man who spoke Arabic who directed him to the office where he applied for asylum. He spent a month in Dublin before being transferred to a direct provision centre in Tralee. In May 2015, he was given refugee status and permission to remain in Ireland.
Determined to take his mind off the loneliness of being so far from his family, Lulu began attending English classes at the International Resource Centre in Tralee where he also learned cooking and went on trips to the west coast. His mother had died in 2010 and shortly after his arrival in Kerry he discovered his father had cancer.
After his refugee status was confirmed, Lulu applied for his father to join him in Ireland through family reunification. His request was refused. “It was just to make him feel better, make his health better and make him feel alive. I had already lost mum, I didn’t want to lose him as well.”
“I am the youngest in the family and I was very close to my mum. If I ever needed anything, I just said it to her. If I had family here I would feel much better.”
He has also shared his story of fleeing Gaza with the recently published Behind the Face booklet which tells the stories of people from abroad who have made Kerry their home. Lulu hopes to study nursing or psychology once he feels confident writing in English. He lives in a small flat in Tralee and says he has plenty of friends but longs to be close to his family.
“Everyone misses his home – his room, his bed, his friends, his family. It’s not easy to forget about your country, you can never forget it. I miss every colour in my house. I will always miss it.”
Ahmed Lulu will perform with the Welcoming the Stranger dance troupe at the Big Bang Festival at Smithfield Market on Sunday, July 30th. The event is free and runs from 3pm to 9pm.